I recently got around to reading the July interview with political scientist, Russian nationalist, and former Putin advisor Sergey Karaganov in the New York Times and wanted to say a few words about it.
For Karaganov, the invasion of Ukraine was a response to Western cancel culture. This is not my conjecture and this is not hyperbole. This is literally what he says in the pages of the New York Times. Here are the key quotes:
[Russia] saw that the West was collapsing in economic, moral, political terms. This decline was especially painful after its peak in the 1990s. Problems within the West, and globally, were not solved. That was a classic prewar situation. … This conflict is existential for most modern Western elites, who are failing and losing the trust of their populations. To divert attention they need an enemy. … This conflict is not about Ukraine. Her citizens are used as cannon fodder in a war to preserve the failing supremacy of Western elites.
Taking into consideration the vector of its political, economic and moral development, the further we are from the West, the better it is for us.
The problem of canceling Russian culture, of everything Russian in the West, is the Western problem. Akin to canceling its own history, culture, Christian moral values.
Confrontation is narrowing the room for political freedom, and I am concerned about that. I am reiterating in most of my writings and public appearances that we should preserve freedom of thinking and intellectual discussion, which is still much wider than in many other countries. We do not have the cancel culture or impose the deafening political correctness. I am concerned about the freedom of thought in the future.
Belligerent Western policies, which are almost welcome, are cleaning our society, our elites, of the remains of pro-Western elements, compradors and “useful idiots.” So, “Make my day.” I love Clint Eastwood movies. But, of course, we are not closing ourselves to European culture. Moreover, I suspect that with cancel culture now on the rise in the West, we could remain one of the few places that will preserve the treasure of the European, Western culture and spiritual values. And we shall not betray the now politically incorrect Ernest Hemingway.
Ukraine is an important but small part of the engulfing process of the collapse of the former world order of global liberal imperialism imposed by the United States and movement toward a much fairer and freer world of multipolarity and multiplicity of civilizations and cultures. One of the centers of this world will be created in Eurasia, with the revived great civilizations that had been suppressed for several hundred years. Russia will be playing its natural role of civilization of civilizations. Russia should also be playing the role of the northern balancer of this system. I hope we shall be able to play this double role. We are proud heirs of a great culture created by Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol. He [Gogol] was coming from the lands that are now Ukraine, and formed our love for these lands. We are heirs of unbeatable warriors, like A. Suvorov, and marshals Zhukov and Rokossovsky. This world order is still over the horizon. But I am working to bring it closer.
The current war is not between Ukraine and Russia but between the West and Russia, in Karaganov’s analysis. Karaganov argues that Moscow is fighting to shore up its elites against Western cultural influence. The West, argues Karaganov, is in “economic, moral, political” decline, so now is the time to strike. And the signs of Western decline that Karaganov describes most frequently in this article are cancel culture and political correctness. These, he says, do not exist in Russia.
There is little effort to push back against Karaganov in this interview. The interviewer, Serge, Schmemann, gives Karaganov wide latitude to make a number of dubious assertions without much pushback…which is fine, because the point of this article is not to debate Karaganov’s position, but to allow the Karaganov’s position to be heard in the United States. In other words, Karaganov complains that Russia is being “canceled” in the world, and yet his voice and his views, which align with the Kremlin’s, are given a full hearing right here in the most prominent newspaper in the West.
Schmemann does push back slightly at one point, mentioning the fact that Russia is bleeding itself of its middle class, its intellectual class, and (perhaps most importantly) its computer scientists. But he doesn’t bother to present Karaganov with the strong arguments that Russia is in economic decline; that its culture has never been less influential in its own geopolitical neighborhood, and that this is not due to any global “cancellation” of Russia; that Russian-language use is declining in all nations that border Russia; that Russian media not only engages in a right-wing equivalent of “cancel culture,” but that the Kremlin itself “cancels” political opposition and regularly assassinates political opponents; and that, if not for its nuclear arsenal, Russia today would be little more than a pawn in the geopolitical standoff between the West and China.
It is clear to me that, from Karaganov’s perspective, the audience for this interview is not liberals who read the NYT who want to understand the Russian position, but conservatives in the United States who hate and resent liberals who read the NYT. He uses the word “cancel” four times, the word “moral” three times, and the phrase “political correctness” twice. He is trying to apply right-wing anxieties about American culture to the war in Ukraine, in order to shore up sympathy with the Russian position (which isn’t really about cancel culture, in my opinion, but about Russian imperialism) among American conservatives.
I believe this strategy will fail, because I think Karaganov underestimates how deep and wide is American distrust of Russia…even/especially among American conservatives. You don’t undo decades of Cold War propaganda in a couple years. Americans view Russia and Russians as cold, frightening, alien, and threatening. I don’t think this perspective will change anytime soon.
For Karaganov, Moscow started this fratricidal war with Ukraine in order to preserve its status in the world so that it can defend Ernest Hemingway. This is literally what he says.